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'The story of The Citadel is the story of change' - The Citadel enters the modern era

More than a decade after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down racial segregation in America's public schools, 17-year-old Charles DeLesline Foster reported to Padgett-Thomas Barracks at The Citadel in September 1966.

A graduate of Charles A. Brown High School on Charleston's East Side, Foster would not have it easy as the first black student to join the Corps of Cadets.

White cadets shouted racial slurs at him from the barracks windows as he walked to classes. Once, a group of cadets from another company rushed toward him dressed as Klansmen in white sheets. 

Joseph Shine, The Citadel's second African-American cadet, endured similar cruelty. One night, Shine answered a knock at the door to his room to find someone had poured nail polish remover in the shape of a cross on the floor and lit it on fire. 

For The Citadel's first black cadets, the fourth-system was double-edged sword, said historian Alex Macaulay, a Citadel graduate from the Class of 1994. The fourth-class system exacerbated racial abuse and harassment but it also "broke down some barriers," Macaulay said, as black and white cadets "started building relationships based on familiarity and trust, which is something that the fourth-class system can foster." 

When a local tavern refused to serve Shine a beer in the front room reserved for whites, white cadets left in protest and boycotted the bar for the rest of Shine's senior year, he said. 

Racial tensions still simmered at The Citadel well-into the 1980s and early '90s. In October 1986, five white cadets entered black cadet Kevin Nesmith’s room wearing white sheets and towels, and shouting racial insults.

While Nesmith ultimately withdrew from The Citadel, citing harassment, the cadets who terrorized Nesmith still graduated, though they did receive the harshest punishment in school history — 195 tours with rifles.  

To the frustration of black cadets, The Citadel’s band continued to play “Dixie” during football games at Johnson Hagood Stadium — while fans waved Confederate flags — until 1992, when a race-relations committee recommended the school halt both traditions.

By 1993, The Citadel was embroiled in another social controversy. Shannon Faulkner, an honors student from Powdersville, was admitted to The Citadel a week after her 18th birthday after omitting all references to her gender on her college application. The Citadel revoked her admission when college official discovered "Shannon" was a woman. 

Faulkner waged a two-year legal battle challenging the school's single-gender admissions policy, a fight that subjected her to cruel attacks in the press and by the public. Her childhood home was vandalized. Her parents received death threats. Citadel supporters sold T-shirts and bumper stickers emblazoned with slogans like “Save the Males” and “1,952 Bulldogs and One Bitch.”

She finally became the first woman to join the Corps of Cadets in The Citadel’s 152-year history in August 1995, under a federal court order. But Faulkner spent most of her first week as a cadet at the infirmary and withdrew less than a week after her enrollment, overcome by stress and exhaustion from her two-year ordeal.  

In 1996, The Citadel’s Board of Visitors eliminated its males-only admissions rule after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that the Virginia Military Institute — another all-male, state-supported military college — must admit women or refuse public money. Four women were admitted that fall, including Nancy Mace, who would become The Citadel's first female graduate.

"The Citadel is often seen as a backwards, reactionary, archaic institution when it’s often been right in line with the social and political attitudes of the rest of the country," Macaulay said. "Some of these changes have come painfully, and some have come painlessly." 

Today, women represent almost 9 percent of the Corps, while African-Americans make up about 10 percent.

The Citadel has faced scrutiny in recent years over allegations of widespread hazing of first-year knobs by the hands of upperclassmen. In 2009, a freshman dropped out after one semester after enduring repeated abuse by upperclassmen. On one occasion, an upperclassman drove an unsharpened pencil into his forehead. 

In the 2011-12 school year, a photo surfaced of a freshman cadet taped to a chair in the shower in the bathroom of his barracks.

While hazing remains a reoccurring problem, under the leadership of the commandant, Capt. Geno Paluso, The Citadel has cracked down on abuse at the hands of other cadets.

Three years ago, The Citadel investigated 85 allegations of hazing and recommended suspension, dismissal or expulsion for 19 cadets involved. Another nine cadets already had withdrawn from the college or resigned as a result of the probe.

"It's still tough. You know, you hear some of the old alumni say that if they didn't beat on you, it wasn't tough. That's not going to hack it this day and time," said Citadel President Lt. Gen. John W. Rosa, who plans to retire in June.

"Parents don't pay this kind of money to have their kids come here, not get to eat, and that's not what we're all about," he added. "We're here teaching people to be leaders and holding them accountable."

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Reach Deanna Pan at 843-937-5764 and follower her on Twitter @DDpan. 

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